Mapping Shane Black’s Obsessions Through ‘The Nice Guys’

The Nice Guys is one of Shane Black’s pulpiest films. Which is an odd thing to say about a guy whose first two movies as a director were Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3, which were about a PI named Gay Perry and a crime-fighting billionaire with a robot house, respectively, and who rose to fame writing goofy action movies like Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, and The Long Kiss Goodnight. But if Iron Man 3 was Shane Black mediated for the masses, The Nice Guys feels more his unadulterated id, with all his usual influences, from Raymond Chandler to the Three Stooges, presented in such undiluted quantities that you can taste them all individually (which, if Chopped judges are to be believed, is a good thing).

I’d been obsessively rewatching Shane Black movies since before I knew his name, so for me the feeling of giddy nostalgia patched some of the bigger holes in the story’s believability. By contrast, a local TV critic who favors elaborate summer hats left the film loudly explaining why she didn’t like it — she just couldn’t buy Ryan Gosling’s character. And he was sort of like a drunk Wile E. Coyote (with boyish good looks). Point being, The Nice Guys probably isn’t the movie I’d take a Shane Black virgin to. It doesn’t nibble your ear to distract from the deflowering, like Geena Davis quoting Harold Robbins in The Long Kiss Goodnight. It’s more like Samuel L. Jackson in the same scene. “I usually just sock ’em in the jaw and yell ‘Pop goes the weasel!’ ”

Of course, if you’re not a Shane Black virgin, identifying all of Shane Black’s various obsessions and writing tics and the way they bubble up and combine throughout The Nice Guys is half the fun. If The Nice Guys is a map of Shane Black’s subconscious, here are some of the main points of interest.

1. Classic film noir and the buddy-cop genre
It’s almost as hard to find a Shane Black movie (by which I’m defining anything he wrote or directed) where the protagonist isn’t an alcoholic private dick as it is to find one that’s not about buddy cops. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and The Last Boy Scout all have PIs as the main or co-main character. In Lethal Weapon, they’re cops, but all of the above feature a duo of protagonists — often interracial, intergender, or of different sexualities (Mel Gibson/Danny Glover, Val Kilmer/Robert Downey Jr., Samuel Jackson/Geena Davis, Bruce Willis/Damon Wayans) — taking on various villains as they try to solve a mystery. With the exception of The Long Kiss Goodnight, they’re all set in the Southern California underworld. Sometimes Black includes the old hard-boiled voiceover, though usually with an overtly comedic, vulgar twist. One of my favorites is Bruce Willis’ daily affirmation in The Last Boy Scout. Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose. Smile, you f*ck.

How does the Nice Guys rate? Baby Goose and Russell Crowe may not be as mismatched as some of Black’s past pairs, but they probably have the highest cumulative acting ability of any. Gosling’s Holland March (fantastic name) might not be Black’s strongest character, as his intelligence seems to waffle between above average and developmentally disabled from scene to scene, but he has a nice, wiry, Chester Cheetah vibe and such a rapport with Russell Crowe that you forgive it.

Shane Black in particular and detective fiction in general love self-hating alcoholic meatheads with hearts of gold. Russell Crowe’s Jackson Healy might not be quite as funny as, say, Bruce Willis, but he’s one of Black’s most human characters, endearing in a way that goes beyond one-liner delivery system (an interesting twist in what’s otherwise Black’s silliest movie since Monster Squad). A tough guy for hire, the violent ass-kicker/big softy dichotomy that exists in almost all of Black’s characters is not only better developed in Healy, but manifested outwardly in Crowe’s physique. With his broad shoulders, stocky Popeye arms, and generous gut, he looks like Rugby Dad PI, the kind of guy who carries a pistol in one pocket and a sausage roll in the other. But Crowe brings dignity and an odd grace to this sloppy, dough-bellied extortionist, and it’s mesmerizing to watch.

2. Dad jokes/Borscht Belt one-liners
I saw Weiner, the Anthony Weiner documentary this week, and there’s one scene where Weiner, in the midst of his latest tense press crisis, breaks the tension by reeling off Rodney Dangerfield one-liners from memory, one after the other. They weren’t the funniest bits you’d ever hear, but there’s something about those kinds of dad jokes that makes them stay in your brain forever. Aside from the “pop goes the weasel” line I quoted in the intro (and I haven’t seen The Long Kiss Goodnight in probably 15 years), there are inevitably Shane Black lines you rarely think about but nonetheless never forget — like “Wolfman’s got nards” or Bruce Willis, when, after some neighborhood kids drop a dead squirrel in his lap while he’s trying to sleep off a hangover in his car, picks up the phone. “What happened?” asks his boss.

“I think I f*cked a squirrel to death and don’t remember.”

Black’s best lines exist in that space between belly laugh and groan, the kind of things you’d hear your uncle use on his dart buddies at the Elks Lodge. Maybe they’re memorable and endearing for the same reason, designed more to be shared and reused than to knock your socks off in the comedy department. The Nice Guys is no slouch here either, giving us both “Love means buying a house for someone you hate” and, when discussing a nearsighted old woman, the Ryan Gosling line: “She’s so nearsighted you could paint a mustache on a Volkswagen and she’d say ‘Boy that Omar Sharif sure runs fast.’ ”

Yes, I had to Google that. If love means buying a house for someone you hate, a great dad joke means laughing at something you don’t entirely understand.

3. Pre-teen outcasts
The precocious child character has been a staple of rom-coms since at least Jerry Maguire, and it’s normally infuriating. And yet, the spunky kid character has been a staple of Shane Black scripts going all the way back to Monster Squad. There’s one in Last Boy Scout, Last Action Hero — one even made it into Iron Man 3. They don’t always work perfectly — the Iron Man 3 kid was a lot more endearing than the one in Last Action Hero — but he has a knack for writing quippy children you don’t want to stuff in a trash can and kick down a hill, which is no easy feat.

How does Shane Black get away with it when hardly anyone else does? Mostly because his spunky kid characters tend to be as obnoxious as they are cute. His kid characters feel less patronizing because he writes them more as they are — sullen shitheads who are occasionally good for a laugh. The older characters never like them right away. Which feels truer to life. It’s much easier to enjoy a smart alecky kid when her acid tongue is deployed against your enemy than when it’s you.

4. Truly Villainous Villains

From Mr. Joshua to Taylor Negron in The Last Boy Scout (R.I.P.), Shane Black’s love of pulp comes through most strongly in his villains, who tend toward cartoonish even in the midst of otherwise grounded movies. The Nice Guys isn’t that grounded, so Matt Bomer’s typically Shane Blackian psycho enforcer guy “John Boy” is fittingly over the top. He’s handsome, sociopathic, bloodthirsty, and far better at his job (hitman) than anyone in real life.

The way Shane Black gets away with these characters is that while he writes the villains as over-the-top cartoons, the way other characters react to them is grounded. A perfect example in Nice Guys is when Crowe and Gosling take the hotel elevator up to meet their MacGuffin, only to find that John Boy has gotten there first. The elevator door opens to a scene of comical violence, with henchmen and bystanders getting their blood and brains spattered all over the walls. They have a perfect “check, please!” moment (high slapstick), and then, they do what any of us would do — hit the “close door” button as fast as they can.

5. The Three Stooges

Shane Black’s Three Stooges influence (see above) would be obvious even if he didn’t mention them by name. There are various types of violence in action movies — stylized visual art (John Woo, Crouching Tiger), choreography-based dance fighting (Tony Jaa, Jackie Chan, The Raid), impressionistic (shakey cam, like Bourne) — but Shane Black’s violence, especially when he’s directing, seems to bridge the gap between Three Stooges-style eye pokes and Die Hard gunplay. Of course, the Three Stooges are mentioned by name in a few scripts with Shane Black’s name on them, so it doesn’t exactly take a genius to make this observation.

God I love Lethal Weapon 2.

6. Jumping off tall buildings

Certain Shane Black patterns are stylistic choices, others are just odd tics. Lethal Weapon opened with Mel Gibson cuffing himself to a homicidal guy and jumping off a building (onto a giant airbag), a scene that was recreated in a later Lethal Weapon with Danny Glover, Joe Pesci, and a hotel pool (the third one, I want to say?). You could argue that the later building jump(s) were just later Lethal Weapon writers (and there were quite a few) trying to work within the pattern Shane Black created, but then the building jump shows up again in The Nice Guys. What an oddly specific stunt to keep reusing.

7. Excessive cigarette smoking

I don’t know if any filmmaker loves cigarettes as much as Shane Black. Lethal Weapon 2 had Riggs eating dog biscuits while he tried to quit. The Last Boy Scout had Bruce Willis killing a guy over a cigarette, as well as the Damon Wayans line, “What would Joe do if he were here? He’d kill everyone and smoke some cigarettes.”

Even that Mr. Joshua clip I posted above started with “Do you smoke?” “Of course!”

The Long Kiss Goodnight? Samuel Jackson getting thrown from a car, then lighting a cigarette while flat on his back (love that scene). I don’t know if The Nice Guys has any more cigarette smoking than any other Shane Black movie, or any more than would be realistic for a movie that largely takes place at pornographer parties in 1978, but it definitely made me want to light up. What can I say? I’m impressionable. Also, cigarettes look cool.

8. Christmas

Setting movies at Christmas-time is probably the most publicized Shane Black tic, so much so that he gets asked about it in interviews:

“It tends to be a touchstone for me,” he admits. “Christmas represents a little stutter in the march of days, a hush in which we have a chance to assess and retrospect our lives. I tend to think also that it just informs as a backdrop. The first time I noticed it was Three Days of the Condor, the Sydney Pollack film, where Christmas in the background adds this really odd, chilling counterpoint to the espionage plot. I also think that Christmas is just a thing of beauty, especially as it applies to places like Los Angeles, where it’s not so obvious, and you have to dig for it, like little nuggets. One night, on Christmas Eve, I walked past a Mexican lunch wagon serving tacos, and I saw this little string, and on it was a little broken plastic figurine, with a light bulb inside it, of the Virgin Mary. And I thought, that’s just a little hidden piece of magic. You know, all around the city are little slices, little icons of Christmas, that are as effective and beautiful in and of themselves as any 40-foot Christmas tree on the lawn of the White House. So that, in a lot of words, is the answer.”

Perhaps because it’s the best known of his writing tics, Christmas is the least noticeable of them to show up in The Nice Guys. I saw it without even realizing it was there, but it is, just very subtly.

All in all, The Nice Guys is fun, but it probably isn’t Shane Black’s masterpiece. Then again, I’m not sure I would’ve called any of his movies masterpieces after the first watch (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, maybe). He has a tendency to get carried away, and things will get a little too silly or a little too vulgar or a little too Borschty. (If there aren’t at least five lines you could imagine a rimshot after you’re not watching a Shane Black movie.) But his movies are endearing for the same reason. They almost always have a few warts and rough edges, but the way you can practically feel him getting carried away is charming even when the story takes a few turns without you onboard. Shane Black’s passion can never quite be contained within the boundaries of good taste, and I love that about him.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.